My brother recently changed his email address, changed his passwords on all his online accounts and spent a sleepless night worrying he was about to have his identity stolen. What prompted this paranoid response?

He was surfing the web looking for a new car and a message popped up referencing his name, the city he lives in and offering him a deal on a car. Shortly thereafter, he was looking for a vacation destination and another ad popped up, again calling him by name and offering him deals in the town he was looking at.

Now, he’s not a stupid person. Paranoid, maybe, but not stupid. He knows about marketing (mostly because his big sister works in the business), but the frequency of these very personalized messages and the way they seemed to pop up unsolicited freaked him out.

The capabilities of online tracking and personalization have exploded in the recent past and we marketers now have more ways than ever to personalize the online experience. However, we also have to be aware of the “creepy” factor of popping in a person’s online activities with overly personalized messages. Some folks won’t care and even more won’t notice, but there is still a chance that you will alienate your target customer by using information they think is private or that they don’t know they are giving you.

My brother tracked the whole thing down to his Yahoo account. I told him that “free” Internet accounts are big business – both from their efforts to monetize the sites and for third parties to piggyback on large audiences and plentiful data – but agreed that messaging should be both relevant and respectful so as to not trigger paranoia. Being truly customer-centric isn’t about simply tracking possible customers down online. It’s about using what you know to reach your customer with the right message using the right channel at the right time in the purchase lifecycle.

By the way, as I hit send on my soothing email to him saying he needs to calm down and make sure his privacy settings are up-to-date, my email provider popped up a disturbing “helpful hint” that referenced something in the body of the email.

Maybe they ARE out to get me!